After devoting much of lockdown to cold-water swimming and doing up a camper van called Mabel, one of the first things Elinor Bishop did when restrictions were lifted this spring was to book surfing lessons. “I love it,” says the 47-year-old, laughing. “I can’t do it very well but I just love it.”
And she is not the only one. As surfing makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo this weekend, the sport is also under the spotlight at home. Surfing England, the national governing body, reports a boom in the UK and, with the rise of staycations, it expects record numbers to hit the waves this summer.
Bishop, a customer service supervisor from the Wye Valley, has been going for lessons with her teenage children at The Wave – an inland surfing lake that produces manmade waves in Bristol – where she was “thrilled” to find the majority in their class were 40-plus. Now that she’s learned to “pop up” (stand) and got hold of a beginners’ board, which she said was like “finding a hen’s tooth”, such is demand, she is planning to test her new-found skills in the sea.
Beginner lessons and sessions at The Wave, which opened in October 2019, are almost fully booked for the summer. “We’re chock-a-block with people wanting to start surfing,” says founder Nick Hounsfield. He says it is popular across the board – from young children to people aged 60-plus: “People through lockdown have realised the value of experience, and being outdoors and in nature, and getting involved in things that bring happiness into their lives, rather than buying belongings. It’s a much more experience-led economy.”
Meanwhile, surfboard makers and sellers are struggling to keep up with demand.
Matthew Hayes, of West Sussex online retailer Boardshop, says he saw a huge jump in sales last July, when business doubled, and that it “has not stopped since then”. Despite stock issues caused by Covid and Brexit, business is “growing and growing”.
Hannah Brand of Surfing England, said Britain’s beaches, especially in North Devon, have been “super busy” with surfers. “It’s definitely getting busier year-on-year, and that’s staycationing. More holidaymakers are coming down to the coast, seeing surfing and going, ‘I want to try that, that looks cool.’ There’s also a great lifestyle that runs along with the sport, there’s a whole identity to being a surfer,” she said.
Wetsuits can cost anything from £100 to £400, while a beginner’s foam board is £150 to £300.
According to Brand, thebuzz is here to stay. “Most people, once they get a taste of it, they get pretty hooked. A lot of people are discovering just how beautiful our own doorstep is and the beaches that we’ve got.”
Since the pandemic, she says there’s been a shift “from phones, tablets and laptops to ‘How do I get an experience and get immersed in nature?’”. As a result, more people are seeking out the ocean, she says, and there’s also been a “massive rise” in cold-water swimming.
Brand hopes that the UK will start to get more recognition as a surfing destination: “People sometimes seem to almost forget that we are an island nation.”
For the landlocked, and professional surfers looking for places to train, artificial wave facilities such as The Wave and Surf Snowdonia, in north Wales, are also improving Britain’s surfing offering.
The Olympics will “shine a light” on the sport, predicts Brand, and prompt even more people to want to have a go themselves. While no British surfers qualified for this Olympics, which featured only 20 men and 20 women, two British surfers, Luke Dillon and Ellie Turner, finished in the top 25 of the recent ISA world championships and there is promising junior talent.
Among them is Team England surfer Alys Barton, 17, who says she has noticed huge enthusiasm for the sport at her local surf school in Gower, south Wales, where she teaches girls: “There’s more people than ever wanting to learn to surf. It’s so awesome to see.” The Olympics has contributed to the new influx, she says, and has made people respect the sport more.
It also provides young surfers with a “long-term goal” to aspire to. Barton says she would love there to be a whole Team GB surfing team in the future.
But not everybody is entirely positive about the surfing boom.
Steve Halpin, owner of Karma Surf Shop in Newquay, Cornwall, which makes custom surfboards, and editor of Real Surfing Magazine, says surfing should be accessible to everyone but he is disappointed that it’s in the Olympics, which, he argues, “will only popularise it”. He misses the days before Instagram and prediction websites when surfing was a subculture.
According to Halpin, overcrowded beaches are leading to more accidents. “Surfing’s just exploded,” he said, “on the one hand, it’s great, because everyone should be out enjoying it and doing more, rather than being stuck in front of the TV. But on the other hand, there isn’t enough room because only certain places have waves.”